Analysis: Burma election landslide for Aung San Suu Kyi

Nobel laureate faces difficult task in balancing expectations following emphatic victory

Supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) celebrate in Mandalay. Photograph: Hkun Lat/AP

Supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) celebrate in Mandalay. Photograph: Hkun Lat/AP

 

Nobel prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi looks set to win the first elections in Burma for years by a landslide, as had been widely expected.

But analysts and human rights groups said it would be the coming weeks and months that will decide if real progress has been made in the southeast Asian nation’s emergence from years of dictatorship.

Her National League of Democracy (NLD) party looked set to secure 70 per cent of the vote after Sunday’s vote. But the military junta is very unlikely to allow Ms Suu Kyi take office, so it becomes a question of seeing what kind of role she can occupy post-polls in the country known officially as Myanmar.

And international pressure is growing for Ms Suu Kyi to say something about the persecution of the largely Muslim Rohingya in the western state of Rakhine, who have faced violent persecution at the hands of Burman Buddhists, the country’s largest ethnic group.

The military junta, which ruled for 50 years with an iron fist, suddenly did a turnaround in 2011 after years of international isolation and handed over power to a government composed largely of former generals.

The change was accompanied by the freeing of many political prisoners and efforts to open up the economy.

The government fears Ms Suu Kyi’s huge popularity. She is technically barred from taking office by a clause in the constitution that does not allow people with foreign children to become president, a caveat believed to have been inserted by the army to prevent her assuming the role.

Wary Suu Kyi

She knows well to be wary, and her whole election campaign was a study in caution. This is the first election that the NLD has formally contested since 1990, when she also won by a landslide.

The military ignored the result then and Ms Suu Kyi spent the next 20 years under house arrest at her home in Rangoon.

However, this same caution has led to pressure from overseas for her to be more forthright about her views on the Rohingya. Asked during the campaign to comment on the persecution, Ms Suu Kyi told reporters not to “exaggerate” the problems of the country.

Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s researcher for the country, said the election marks an important moment in Burma’s history.

“However, the elections were seriously undermined by the jailing of peaceful activists, restrictions on free speech, discrimination and the political disenfranchisement of minority groups – in particular the persecuted Rohingya,” said Ms Haigh.

In the month leading up to the election, Amnesty reckons that at least 19 additional prisoners of conscience were jailed, bringing the total that Amnesty is aware of to 110. Hundreds of others are on bail awaiting trial.

“Whatever the outcome of the elections, the challenge for the next government cannot be overstated. The people of Myanmar have sent a powerful message demanding change. The real test of the authorities’ commitment to human rights reforms will come in the days, weeks, months and years after the polling stations have closed,” said Ms Haigh.

Burma’s neighbours and others will be watching closely to see how things unfold.

US secretary of state John Kerry said the election had “the potential to be an important step towards greater peace, prosperity, and democracy for the people of Burma”.

“There remain important structural and systemic impediments to the realisation of full democratic and civilian government, including the reservation of a large number of unelected seats for the military, the disfranchisement of groups of people who voted in previous elections, including the Rohingya, and the disqualification of candidates based on arbitrary application of citizenship and residency requirements,” said Mr Kerry.

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